The story of Pastor Alpha

The story of Pastor Alpha: becoming an emotionally intelligent pastoral leader

How a pastor needs to use his/her emotional intelligence in order to show better leadership.

Delbert W. Baker, Ph.D., is president of Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama.

Pastor Alpha 1 graduated from the seminary at the top of his class. He excels in Greek, Hebrew, and theology and is well versed in biblical hermeneutics. He can explain difficult biblical prophecies and complex theological truths, and can quote a dizzying array of texts from memory. He has an extensive vocabulary, a full and resonant voice, and the ability to paint powerful word pictures and command audiences with dramatic pulpit mannerisms. He is tall, personable, and striking in appearance. He is happily married. He seems the ideal pastoral prospect with a promising future ahead.

Unfortunately, however, Pastor Alpha's ministry has not really taken off! Mired in mediocrity, he transfers from one pastorate to the next, leaving behind a string of problems, complaints, and disgruntled parishioners. Everywhere he pastors, the record is the same. He has talent and technical skills but does not get along well with people.

Pastor Alpha lacks the ability to deal with his own emotions and the emotions of others. Though intellectually brilliant, he lacks the emotional skills necessary to relate successfully to others. As a result, he continues to experience failed relationships with his parishioners.


Pastors, ministers, and church administrators in the twenty-first century are expected to possess such skills as proficiency in biblical knowledge, leadership ability, expertise in communication, proficiency in spiritual formation, ability to motivate, organizational mastery, conflict management, and competency in problem solving, to name a few. These can be termed hard skills. However, in recent decades, leaders are increasingly expected to also possess what are sometimes referred to as soft skills, which facilitate good interpersonal relations, sensitivity, and diversity expertise. One such skill is emotional intelligence.

Broadly defined, emotional intelligence (El) is "the capacity to recognize and manage our own feelings and to respond to the feelings of others in such a manner as to create positive outcomes." Few skills are as important to a Christian worker as the spiritually based ability to understand and relate to one's own emotions and the emotions of others.

Many Christian leaders lack emotional intelligence. The problem is, they often are not aware of this deficit. Emotional intelligence is arguably one of the most essential tools for a successful ministry, whether in person-to-person encounters, local congregation leadership, or the denominational administrative structure. Yet in many ministerial training circles, emotional intelligence is little thought of or referred to.

Christians often assume that the biblical command to love (e.g., 1 Cor. 13; Eph. 5; 1 John 3) is enough in itself. That is, to want to love is somehow equal to loving or knowing how love works. Similarly, it is believed that a leader's emotional intelligence automatically comes with his or her desire to love.

"We are judged by a new yardstick: not just by how smart we are, or by our training and expertise, but also by how well we handle ourselves and each other," says Daniel Goleman, author of Working With the Emotional Intelligent and Primal Leadership. Goleman's research demonstrates that in the organizational setting, having emotional intelligence is twice as important for competent leadership performance as having IQ and technical skills combined.

There is hope for anyone having the Pastor Alpha syndrome! Integrating emotional intelligence principles in the context of the gospel and mediated by biblical values can facilitate true transformation in the life of the Christian leader. Five steps will bring about positive change in ministerial leadership relationships.

1. Accept the El and people connection

Ministry is about people. Loving and relating to diverse people is at the heart of an effective ministry. Jesus is the true model of leadership, and His ministry was intertwined with people from the beginning to the end (see Luke 2:52). "He who seeks to trans form humanity must himself under stand humanity. Only through sympathy, faith, and love can men be reached and uplifted."2

This understanding is a crucial step. Knowledge, abilities, and skills are important, but they can't be separated from the centrality of sound emotional intelligence. This need is a reality for ministerial and leadership success.

Paul himself highlighted the importance of the leader's emotional intelligence. He noted that these qualities originate with the Holy Spirit but need to be cultivated and nurtured in the life of the believer: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and selfcontrol. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit" (Gal. 5:22-25, NIV).

Paul also identified emotionally unintelligent qualities emotions and actions that need to be avoided (verses 19-21, NIV): "The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God."

Clearly, the emotional tasks of pas tors and Christian leaders are primally people-centered. This primacy is high lighted in the apostle Peter's principles of spiritual development listed in 2 Peter 1:3-10. Brotherly kindness and love are at the top of the hierarchy of vital spiritual traits. This same relational emphasis is found in 1 Corinthians 13, the well-known "love chapter." Next to loving God, loving and relating authentically and sensitively to others is the primary and most important trait of a Christian.

Emotional intelligence, then, provides a platform and context for love to demonstrate itself. Its effects are obvious. When a pastor models love and authenticity and encourages members toward spirituality, the church grows and develops significantly. Conversely, if the pastor models selfishness and negative attitudes, spirituality suffers and vitality plummets.

2. Admit the need to change

If a person has a problem handling emotions and dealing adversely with others, he or she must accept responsibility for what's happening in his or her life and ministry. However, conventional thinking indicates that only about 20 percent of a given group is committed to personal change at any given time. Often it takes a crisis to bring about the realization that a leader is having problems and needs to change. However, this change must begin with the person.

People will learn what they want to learn, and when they want to learn it. For the change process to begin, Pastor Alpha types must have the interest, motivation, and commitment to see the need and admit the deficit in their ministry.

A frequent challenge in leadership is that people don't tell the leader how she/he is being perceived until it's too late. The leader suffers from what might be called pastoral myopia not being able to see oneself clearly and therefore causing harm unawares.

Helpful indicators that highlight the need for change such as frequent disagreements, lack of cooperation, feelings of isolation, anxiety, disruption of devotional life, lowering of spiritual standards, and constant reoccurrence of career roadblocks are overlooked or excused away.

Fortunate is the leader who can spiritually discern personal danger areas. Fortunate also is the leader who receives vital feedback from concerned people so he or she can do something about it.

3. Use the spiritual transformational power of El

When it is clear that a leader needs help, what is he or she to do? While the Holy Spirit is the source and catalyst of all genuine change, emotional intelligence is a primary tool to effect authentic relational improvements in a spiritual leader. The development and practice of spiritual discipline provides the needed nourishment for the life of the believer (see 1 Tim. 4:7, 8). Prayer, Bible study, service, steward ship, and fellowship with believers encourage growth in maturity, strength, endurance, wisdom, and faithfulness. Spiritual discipline provides the energy and authenticity to achieve the positive effects of emotional intelligence in one's life.

Arguably, no concept has played a greater role in leadership development in the last two decades than emotional intelligence. Psychologists John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey developed and defined emotional intelligence in the 1980s, and the research of Daniel Goleman popularized emotional intelligence in the 1990s. However, the concepts and principles have been with us for a long time.

Emotional intelligence recognizes that all leaders experience emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, ecstasy, terror, despair, and fear. Such feelings are generally helpful in that they signal information about relationships. For example, happiness sig nals the presence of harmonious relationships; whereas fear signals a state of being threatened. Emotions, then, bridge thought, feeling, and action. Emotions become problematic when they dominate and control a person.

Often such domination is slow in developing and therefore occurs with-out our awareness. When it does occur in a leader, there is a strong inclination to develop attitudes and behaviors that destroy trust in relationships and complicate decision making. However, a further complicating reality is that emotional intelligence takes time to learn because the emotional system is not easily or quickly changed. In fact, making significant changes can require a year or more. Further, making such changes enduring is highly dependent on social interaction. Significant change seldom takes place by insight alone, in isolation, outside of helpful relationships.

Emotional intelligence is acquired through experience in relationships. It requires time and diligence, but the benefits are obvious and highly rewarding. Emotions and actions are brought under control. Stress levels are lowered. The leader is better able to avoid saying or doing things he or she will later regret. The leader communicates more effectively and is able to influence others without undue conflict. Further, relationships with parishioners, colleagues, and family are enhanced.

Emotions play a pivotal role in molding and shaping thinking and logic. New breakthroughs in the area of neurophysiology have verified this crucial relationship between values, intellect, and emotions.

When emotions such as anger, sadness, or fear are experienced, the human brain is programmed to respond to the threat, and an emotional response is activated. Time should be taken first to reflect on the situation. With prayer and the help of the Holy Spirit, that response can be rational and intentional. Emotional intelligence dynamics are put to work. Clear thinking, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, gives positive direction to subsequent actions.

4. Expand your El horizon

In his book Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence,3 Daniel Goleman suggests two broad competencies necessary foremotional intelligence: "personal competence," the capability that determines how we manage ourselves, which consists of self-awareness and self-management; and "social competence," the capability that determines how we manage relationships, which includes social awareness and relation ship management. These categories offer leaders endless opportunities for evaluation and improvement.

Self-awareness, the first capability in the personal competence category, is considered to be one of the most important areas in the life of a leader. It is being aware of your emotions and their impact on others. This category includes such characteristics as emotional self-awareness, accurate self-assessment, and self-confidence.

Self-management, the other capability in the personal competence category, is the ability to make our emotions work for us and not against us. It includes emotional self-control, transparency, adaptability, achievement, initiative, and optimism.

Social awareness means understanding, accepting, and being sensitive to the emotions and perspectives of others. This category includes empathy, organizational awareness, and service.

Finally, relationship management is building collaborative and satisfying relations with others. It includes inspirational leadership, influence, developing others, conflict management, building bonds, teamwork, and collaboration.

Of course, while being conversant with emotional intelligence terminology is helpful, leaders can work on emotional intelligence without knowing all the relating categories, characteristics, and vocabulary. Knowledge of and training in specific emotional intelligence areas can be of great assistance, but not an absolute.

A leader can determine, by the grace of God and with increased personal or interpersonal effort, to be more emotionally intelligent. By being more conscious of emotions and their impact by practicing skills needed to understand, manage, and relate to emotions better advancement may be realized. By enlisting the thoughtful help of others, along with focus and energy, progress can be made.

It should also be noted that one's health habits or lack of them will have impact as well. Sleep deficiencies, poor dietary habits, little or no exercise, etc., can make emotional intelligence efficiencies more difficult to achieve. By being responsible in these areas alone, emotional intelligence performance in the home, church, and social circles can be improved.

5. Develop a change strategy

Pastor Alpha has been working on improving his relational skills. He is determined to do something about his history of emotional unintelligence and is getting a handle on his emotional roadblocks. At this point he needs a plan.

Richard Boyatzis, coauthor with Daniel Goleman of Primal Leadership, suggests three steps for anyone interested in improving his or her emotional intelligence.

First, honestly and candidly assess your current emotional intelligence state. This can be done privately or with the help of others. Second, decide what you want as an emotional intelligence goal, an ideal state. Finally, develop a clear implementation plan to arrive at your ideal state. Evaluate your progress frequently to assess the effectiveness of the change process. The assistance of an informed coach or friend can greatly facilitate the emotional intelligence growth process.

Pastor Alpha has realized that a big part of his problem has been his unawareness of his emotions and how they have been negatively impacting others. He has decided that he needs to do something about it. He has prayed and has deliberately started to pay attention to how he has been coming across to people and how they have been reacting.

He now focuses more on the moment and upon the person he is interacting with, rather than on his personal point or the project at hand. He asks those close to him for their feed back on his emotions and actions. He has started to listen. He has then intentionally chosen to increase his emotional self-awareness and self-control through deliberate self-assessment, which he has received from his own personal assessments and from others.

He then resolved to build bonds and increase the level of teamwork and collaboration. He kept focused on his plan. Periodically, he personally reflected and met with trusted confidants to assess how he was doing.

The plan has worked. Pastor Alpha used the three-step plan with good outcome. He assessed himself to ascertain his current state and challenged himself to achieve an ideal a specific, measurable target. He developed a simple plan to get from where he was to where he wanted to be. The plan was accompanied by evaluation feedback. He was gratified that with God's help, his commitment, and support he began to see progress.


So ends this idealized story. The leader who senses his or her need in this area is truly unique. It is rare because people, and often leaders especially, don't sense that they lack emotional intelligence.

It takes courage and humility for a pastor or Christian leader to admit this. It takes determination to commit to a development plan. As leaders expand their understanding of human nature and its impact on all areas of life and interaction, one thing is apparent change can and does occur, even though it doesn't happen overnight. While some effects will be real and immediate, others will be gradual and long-term.

It is clear that we never graduate from our need to improve emotional intelligence. It is really the work of a lifetime. By the grace of God and the Holy Spirit, coupled with personal effort, our ministry can be transformed!

The challenge to be authentic, genuine, and loving servant leaders can take us to new heights. We can be encouraged. The power of the gospel united with the determination of the human will can accomplish truly awesome tasks. Our ministry and our lives can be transformed.

1 Pseudonym.

2 Ellen G. White, Education (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), 78.

3 Daniel Goleman, Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence (Harvard Business School Press, 2002).



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Delbert W. Baker, Ph.D., is president of Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama.

July/August 2005

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